I also wanted to know, first hand, what was happening at the protests. Early on in the Trump regime, I stopped going to protests. Like I said, I’m not a big crowd person. I find it hard to get caught up in what’s happening. More importantly, they felt ineffective–more like a parade than a protest (as my daughter would say). I could identify no real objective, other than to voice objection, which felt like screaming into a canyon.
Unlike the first Women’s March, in which white women were taking selfies with police, pink hats all around, yesterday’s march had no feeling of parade or celebration. It was not for show or for shots of liberal feel-good.
The crowd skewed young and angry. It was tense. It was also, as much as anything can be when you are faced with police in riot gear, tear gas at the ready, peaceful.
As was the case yesterday, I find myself without much to say. I don’t really think this is a moment for voices such as mine.
I marched at the protest with my daughter, surrounded by people her age. I thought about the world I thought I was bringing her into–what I thought I was giving her–and I wondered what the parents of all the others there had thought they were giving their children. I want to tell you how it broke my heart a little, to see these people taking action to try to make the world be more like the one I (wrongly) thought we once had, to see their anger and frustration and courage and hope. But my broken heart is not the important thing here, and my tiny heartbreak is nothing in comparison to that of the parents who have lost their children at the hands (or knees or bullets) of police, or those who worry that they will.
Last week a journalist claimed that America is a tinderbox. Last night, in a peaceful protest in a town known for its liberalism, I could feel it–people brittle as leaves and sticks on the forest floor after a summer of drought. Our youth–all of our youth, not just those privileged by social class and race–need real hope for something like the kind of future I took for granted when I was their age, and they need it in the form of action, not empty words and gestures without substance. They need more than police taking a knee one minute and then rising up to throw teargas and shoot rubber bullets the next. They need relief from corrupt leaders, inept government, gross income inequality, a trashed economy, crushing debt, racist systems, and a dying planet.
We all need that for them, too. As activist Lilla Watson once said,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
A lit fire can be hard to contain, and people who feel they have little or nothing to lose are going to be quick to reach for matches.
We all have more to lose than we realize, I think.
I spent a fair amount of time yesterday writing a post I’m not going to share.
Writing is my way of processing what’s happening, and it served that purpose, but even I am just not all that interested in my perspective on what’s happening in my country–so I’m not going to share it here.
I am weary of so many people I know pontificating on social media when, frankly, they don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. And, sorry(notsorry), their opinions (and mine) just aren’t as important as those of others who know more than we do. I’m thinking I don’t need to join the cacophany of white noise any more than I already have.
I think the best thing I can do as a white person is shut the hell up and listen.
Here are a few voices that need amplification far more than mine:
My daughter’s graduation celebration was supposed to be last weekend, but it was cold and drizzly out and I had a migraine and the graduation video I was making for her wasn’t done. She was only a few days into quarantine, and…the time just wasn’t right.
One of the rules of the pandemic seems to be that there are no rules of pandemic, so you can have your grad party any time you want to. Or when the weather and your migraines are cooperating. So we had it yesterday.
I would like to share heartwarming photos with you, but I didn’t take any. I was too busy being fully present in the moment. I might regret that later, but I might not.
There were only four of us, and we’re all pretty quiet by nature, so it wasn’t a rager. But it was really nice. For the video, I asked many people who have been important in my daughter’s life to record a message they’d like to share with her. In real life, we’d never have been able to gather all of them in our backyard (divorce, geographic distance), so we got to feel their presence without awkward tensions or social exhaustion. For the first time since 2008, my daughter got to have her whole family in the same place on a momentous occasion. Sorta.
We partied social distance style, which means imperfectly. Grace is still in quarantine (sorta), which means that we all sat outside at least 6 feet away from each other. I rearranged the cozy patio layout to put more distance between the seats. I served only takeout or individually wrapped food (no communal bowls of chips), using disposable plates and cutlery. Her best friend, B., and I reminisced at one point about her visit during the Christmas holidays, which feels so long ago, where I had made food and we had sat close to each other around a table, and she had been full of hopes and plans that have mostly evaporated.
Like everything right now, yesterday was both lesser and more than, simultaneously.
Would we have all teared up watching messages of love to my daughter in our pre-March world? Would the messages have been as heartfelt? I doubt it, and there’s a gift in that. I tried not to project ahead to the winter holidays, where we might not be able to gather even in this limited way. But I did, a little. I just glanced at that possibility in my mind, and then let it push me back into the present with more appreciation for it than I’d had even the minute before.
Yesterday was also the day the New York Times released a cover page with a list of 1,000 dead from C-19. (Click here if you’d like to be able to read it, not just see it.) That’s only 1% of people who will not get to attend any celebrations of any kind this weekend, nor will they get to live through a diminished holiday season come winter. My head today is full of thoughts and questions about the future. When I look ahead to the fall and winter, it is hard to feel anything but anxiety and fear. So I’m looking at my kitchen right now, filled with the remains of yesterday’s celebration, grateful to have such a mess to clean.
I don’t have much to offer this week. I missed my usual Sunday posting here, for the first time in months. I just couldn’t, and I gave myself permission to be OK with that, and this morning I reminded myself that earlier, I’d given myself permission to sometimes do this badly. So here I am, offering the best I’ve got right now:
Late is better than never. Doing something imperfectly is better than not doing it at all. We should do what we can, however we can, while we can. Later, we’ll be glad we did.
In July of 2003, my normally sanguine daughter took up crying jags. They came from seemingly nowhere, like afternoon storms on sunny summer days. I remember holding her 5-year-old self in my lap by the side of a pool, on our back deck, on the edge of her bed, rubbing her back with my hand to calm her ragged breathing. She couldn’t tell me what her tears were about.
Eventually, in mid-August, she could:
“Lindy is going to college, and I am going to kindergarten, and then I’ll go to middle school, and then high school, and then I’ll have to go to college, too, and then I won’t be able to live with you any more!”
Lindy, her older sister, was indeed preparing to leave us for college, and Grace was on her way to kindergarten.
“And you know I don’t like change!” she sobbed.
Me either, I thought, holding her close to me, full of my own feelings about all the changes bearing down on us.
As is usual, Grace was correct about how things were going to go: She did go to kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college. At one point–probably in early middle school–she told me she’d settled on Reed College as her preferred institution of higher education because it was both a good school and one that she could get to from our home on Mt. Hood using only public transportation, “so you won’t have to drive me.” She showed me the bus routes she’d need to take (she’d mapped it all out): a nearly two-hour commute one way, but that, she said, would give her plenty of time to study and read.
“You know, ” I said, “by the time you’re ready for college, you probably won’t want to live at home any more.” She assured me that I was wrong about that. She was too old for me to hold close the way I had when she was five and she had no need for me to, but I wanted to.
As it turned out, she did not go to Reed. She went to Georgetown, more than 3,000 miles from home. I suppose she could have traveled there by bus, but it has not been, in any way, an easy commute from our home to her school. Although she’d once been to DC on a trip with her grandparents, she’d never set foot on campus before she packed up her life into two bags she could take on an airplane and flew away with them. She did not choose this school because of a desire to be far from home. In the calculus of risk and reward, costs and benefits, Georgetown was the logical choice, and the girl we nicknamed Spock grew into a young woman who made all important choices from the head more than the heart.
The day she left, mine broke a little–with pride (what a brave thing she was doing!) and gratitude (what opportunities she would have!) and sorrow. Her new beginning was the ending of my most important and rewarding work.
As it turned out, once she left she never came back home to live. She got summer jobs in DC every year and made a whole life for herself there. It’s nice, sometimes, how we can’t know how things are really going to go. I don’t know how it might have been for me if I’d known on that day she walked out our front door that she wouldn’t come home to live again for her four years of college. Even harder than it was, I suppose.
Yesterday was supposed to be her graduation day. Her grandmother and I were supposed to fly east to watch her line up and march and get her papers and celebrate her work and accomplishments. Then, she was supposed to come home for a visit with her boyfriend before returning to DC to work this summer. Instead, she flew west alone, once again with her whole life packed into a few bags, to live with me at least through the summer, maybe longer. We can’t know for sure.
We can never know for sure, something I wish I’d understood when I was standing where she is now. At 22, I thought of life as being something like a novel, a cohesive narrative that could be broken into chapters, each one leading inevitably to the next. That is why it felt so important, especially then, to make the right authorial choices: each would create and eliminate a host of others. Choose wrong, and some beautiful plot lines (about love, children, work, home) would never be written.
Now I can see that if life is like a book, it is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel or an epic poem. It is filled with endings and beginnings, full stops and new starts and long pauses, episodes of living complete unto themselves. Some characters appear only once, while others drift in and out of the larger and looser narrative, sometimes at the center of the action and sometimes only at its periphery. The white space between one story’s ending the the next’s beginning is not empty: It is full of breath, rest, possibility, and actions so small or insignificant they aren’t worth noting–unless, suddenly, they are, at which point a new story begins.
My girl who hated change and clung to family and once charted her options in kaleidoscopic color-coded spreadsheets–a hedge against missed opportunities and lesser choices–has grown into an independent woman who still makes plans but no longer fits them into tiny digital boxes. I’m watching her lean into this moment in the world that is intersecting with this moment of her life, one that’s blown the boxes to bits in ways that are both terrifying and freeing, creating a horizon full of nothing certain but uncertainty and change.
The gift in this moment that has writ the future’s uncertainty large is that she can see clearly what many of us hard-working good students who once traveled through that profound transition between school and everything beyond school did not. We faced a similar horizon; we just didn’t know it. We looked out and thought we could see just how our stories would unfold, believed the major points of our plots were inevitable–or at least within our power to control. We didn’t pause long enough to see how wide open everything really was, to scan for roadblocks and pitfalls and possibilities of all sorts, to consider all the different destinations available to us. We just kept marching inexorably forward.
So, while I am sad, worried, and fearful about many things for all of our children, I’m finding a little something to be grateful for in this moment of unexpected endings and delayed beginnings and narrative threads that threaten to snap. What I might have given to have understood, much sooner than I did, that my most important choices were going to be about how to respond to plot twists I couldn’t control and never saw coming. I’m grateful, too, to know that my smart, strong, brave, thoughtful daughter will, as she’s always done, make the most of the gifts she’s been given, even the ones wrapped in the dark paper of this time.
“There’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky anymore,” the vet says, before I’ve even explained why we are here.
His eyes, all I can see of the face behind his mask, are kind. “I just want to prepare you for what’s coming.”
I realized recently that every morning, when I go to wake the dogs, I am holding my breath just a little. I don’t exhale until I see their blankets move, relieved that I will not start my day with death. So, I know what’s coming. Knowing doesn’t prepare me for it, though.
Last weekend Rocky woke up a little after midnight, barking. He never does this. I got up, let him outside. Put him back to bed. He barked and barked and barked. I thought about letting him sleep in my bed with me, but I didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce this behavior, dooming myself to nights of enduring either a barking dog or a dog in my bed. It occurs to me today that I don’t have to worry about that the same way I worried about, say, the way the kids conditioned both our dogs to beg for food while we eat, a behavior I’ve tried for more than a decade to change.
There won’t be years’ worth of nights to endure of anything with Rocky.
Rocky is one of two “divorce guilt dogs.” That’s what my daughter dubbed them when she was just a tween. She was not wrong. She knew the score. In less than a week she will be returning to this country from Sweden, where she’s been since early March. She will fly to DC, where she will pick through the physical stuff she’s accumulated over four years of college, performing a kind of material triage to determine which things she will put on another plane and which she will leave behind forever. Perhaps this will distract her from thinking about the scattered friends she never got to say good-bye to. She’s leaving behind her first real love, too, and although they have plans to reunite in Sweden again this fall, well…we’ve all seen what happens to plans, haven’t we? Plans are merely hopes, now more than ever. Then she will arrive here, her home but not her home, where we will figure out how to quarantine her, and how to live together again, for we don’t know how long.
A friend, one who has lived through catastrophes the likes of which I can hardly comprehend, tells me I should drive across the country to get her and drive all of her things back here, to spare her the trauma of going through such an experience alone. I am dumbfounded.
“I can’t just drive across the country,” I say. I sputter about work, risks of infection, lock-down orders, quarantine.
“Honey,” she says, as if talking to a child, “we’re all going to get it. You know that, right? You don’t really think you can avoid it, do you?”
The vet manipulates Rocky’s feet, turning them under as he props him up on the exam table, to see what his legs will do. After a pause, they move. A little. He says something to the tech making notes on the computer about nerve function. The vet’s eyes and mine meet over our face masks.
“His nerve function isn’t what it used to be. He’s having trouble knowing where his legs are in space.”
I’m having a harder and harder time with work. Technically, I am a teacher. I work under a teacher contract, but I don’t belong to any one school; I belong to ten of them (which feels like belonging to none of them). I am a librarian who serves those who serve the students directly. More and more, students feel more abstract than real. I know they are real–I hear about them from those who see them in Zoom meetings, I know they are muddling through this pandemic in varying states of wellness and distress, I know many are living in a purple zone of the infection map–but I haven’t seen any student faces since March 13, and I can’t feel them in the same way. I never understood, before, how simply seeing and hearing them grounded me in my work, in the world.
The only faces I see are those of other adults. They all look weary through my screen. Sometimes, not in our large group meetings, but in smaller ones of two or three, some of us share with each other how it’s really going, how we’re really doing.
“I’m trying to let go of things,” I tell someone I trust. “I’m trying to let go of things I know I can’t really affect.”
“Yes,” says the face on my screen. “I am, too. But there’s a difference between letting go and giving up. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m giving up.”
I think maybe I know a little bit about how Rocky feels. Sometimes, when he is walking, his stiff back legs that don’t really bend anymore skidding on the wood floor, something gives and he is suddenly on the ground, flailing, paws paddling in air. He reminds me then of a turtle on its back, the way he is unable to right himself.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the kind vet says. “Does he still like to eat? Is he still drinking water?”
I nod, hoping he’ll think that my glasses are fogging from the breath trapped in my face mask. That could be what it is.
“Yes, he still loves to eat.”
Daschunds are famous eaters. They will eat and eat and eat, going as long as the food lasts. When he and Daisy, the other divorce guilt dog, were younger and had teeth, I left dry food out in bowls to let them eat on demand. I was lazy. Or stretched too thin. Or both. I let them turn into fat, roly-poly pups who loved to lounge in patches of sun and sleep on our laps and burrow under our covers.
Neither dog has any teeth left (Daschunds are also famous for dental issues), and meals are now soft food given three times a day. Their need to eat might be providing the most consistent structure in my life now. Daisy is still soft, a round, warm bundle of fur and fat, skin and bone. She leaps vertically up and down while I scoop her food, often reaching nearly the height of the counter, whimpering and whining with what sounds like joy. Rocky stays grounded, usually putting one paw on my foot, his whole body quivering. He is not soft and round. I can count the vertebrae of his spine just looking at him.
The vet runs his hand over Rocky’s bony body. “There’s not much Rocky left of Rocky,” he says again, still kindly and gently, as if he knows he might need to say it more than once for his meaning to sink in.
Lately I’ve been unable to keep my mind out of the past. I long for my grandparents. I long for the beautiful, pain-free bodies my cousins and I once had, and for the summer nights when our strong, lithe legs gathered and tangled beneath our grandparents’ kitchen table. I long to feel again how I felt then.
In a phone conversation I try to tell my son, the Marine I don’t know when I’ll see again, how the world felt to me when I was growing up in my working class home. Although some definitely had more than others of us, I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with worrying about food or living in cars or surfing for sofas to sleep on, the way so many do now. In my memory, almost everyone looked down upon racists and fascists and censorship and monopolies and religious zealots, and it was socially taboo to openly express that some of us were lesser than others of us–because we all knew such a belief was wrong. The people I knew respected science and education. We knew there were problems (racism, sexism, all the -isms), but there was such surety in our elders’ belief that we were forever on a march forward, that each generation would do better and have it better than the ones that came before it, their belief felt like fact.
No one I know feels that way now. “I’m worried for our kids,” we say to each other, not in large groups, but privately. Guiltily–not only for not passing on the same prospects, but for having had them when others did not. For not understanding, earlier, that not everyone had them and that others were working to strip them from many of us who did. For wondering what else we might not be seeing now, because having been profoundly blind once, we can surely be as blind again.
My son and I catalog all the ways in which his grandparents and I had it better than any other generations of Americans (including his), which, perhaps, makes us supremely unprepared for this time. “I feel soft,” I admit to him.
“I don’t want to go back in time,” I tell him. I don’t want to go back to an incomplete understanding of my country, or to a time in which so many people like me didn’t understand that only people who looked like us had the kind of security we took for granted. Still, I want my children–everyone’s children–to have what I had, and in profound ways they don’t. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” I say. “We could make so many things better for everyone.” I wonder if my belief is naive, as little tied to evidence as any faith.
“It would be nice in some ways to have lived when all of you did,” he says, “but I think I would have hated not having the internet.”
“No,” I say, “you wouldn’t have hated it.” I try to tell him, ground him in a concrete memory: “When my grandma would come home from a late shift–she was a Fred Meyer cashier–we’d sit at the kitchen table, my cousins and me and her. We’d play Yahtzee or cards, and eat ice cream, and watch Johnny Carson. We’d talk and laugh.”
I miss those people and that time and place so deeply, my eyes fill as I try to make him understand how it felt. I know my memory feels unremarkable to him. It’s hard to see what’s remarkable for what’s not in something–fear, anxiety–rather than for what is. “You would have liked it,” I say, knowing that I can’t make him see or feel it. You had to have been there.
I’ve brought Rocky to the vet because I’m afraid that he’s been in pain. He’s been acting the way he used to when his teeth would get bad: clingy, barking, weirdly stretching his jaw after meals. I’ve been giving him more lap time, as I’m able. Every night we watch something on TV together before bed. He’s sat in on a few Zoom meetings in recent weeks, and sometimes I reach over his body sleeping on my lap to work at my keyboard. There are no more teeth to remove, but he has a nasal fistula, a hole in his mouth that leads to the nasal cavity. I have been worried about infection. When I heard that vets are open for non-emergency visits, I called the same day.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the vet says again.
Rocky’s always been an anxious animal. We learned early on that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers; he’d chase them and bark and jump on them. One of his ribs juts out at a funny angle, and if a foot ever brushes the middle section of his body, he shrieks. We don’t know what happened to him before he came to us, but he’s never been easy in the world.
He spends most of his hours in sleep, now. He and Daisy share a basket during the day, one I used to carry my preemie babies around in when they first came home from the hospital. It has a soft cushion in it, with a furry blanket for burrowing into. They each have their own bed at night, but most mornings I find them curled into each other in just one bed. Sometimes when I see them there, I think of my children, twins who spent the first months of their life sleeping within reach of each other’s limbs and breath.
What is it that we need for a quality life? Food, drink, a comfortable bed. Safety and security. Love and connection.
I think of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which hang as posters on the wall of a local coffeehouse, Bipartisan Cafe. Used to be you could never get a seat there if you went too late on a weekend morning. I miss going there on weekend mornings or in the late afternoons. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell of it, and the hissing and clanging of the espresso machine, the low hum of voices, the sun streaming through windows, the sound of chair legs scraping against worn fir floors, the crust of their banana cream pie.
I miss a lot of small things. Estate sales, busy parks, food cart pods with picnic tables and twinkle lights.
I miss the sound of Rocky’s nails clicking on the floor as he ran to chase a toy thrown by one of the kids, back when he could run the way I could when I was a teenager, with a smooth, swift stride. I miss sitting down to eat dinner with my daughter and son every night. I miss my grandparents, who I will never see again, and my parents who I cannot know when I will see again. I’m planning to, but you know how hopes can go.
Yesterday we got take-out pastries and took them to a park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. When a loose toddler veered too close, I tensed up. When a runner with no face mask passed us on a path, I wondered if an invisible cloud of disease trailed him, and if we were walking in it, breathing it in. “Let’s go home,” I said.
I miss feeling hopeful.
I miss freedom from want and fear.
“Rocky still has some life in him,” the vet says, “and it could be a little while yet, but I want you to be prepared for what’s coming.” I nod.
“I know,” I say, thinking: How do any of us prepare for what’s coming, really?
“His quality of life is OK for now, but it could change quickly. And when it does, it could go downhill very fast.” His eyes are still kind, but solemn, and I press what’s left of Rocky to my chest, nodding my head again, and I keep him close to me for the rest of the day after we return home.
How Anticipatory Grief May Show Up during the COVID-19 Outbreak: “A mourning process can occur even when we sense that a loss is going to happen, but we don’t know exactly what it is yet. We know the world around us will never be the same — but what exactly we’ve lost and will lose is still largely unknown to us.”
The World Is Taking Pity on Us: “A country that turned out eight combat aircraft every hour at the peak of World War II could not even produce enough 75-cent masks or simple cotton nasal swabs for testing in this pandemic.
A country that showed the world how to defeat polio now promotes quack remedies involving household disinfectants from the presidential podium.
A country that rescued postwar Europe with the Marshall Plan didn’t even bother to show up this week at the teleconference of global leaders pledging contributions for a coronavirus vaccine.
A country that sent George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower to crush the Nazis now fights a war against a viral killer with Jared Kushner, a feckless failed real estate speculator who holds power by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter.”
The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying: “The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence.”
McDonald’s Workers in Denmark Pity Us: “The golden age of American capitalism, from 1945 to 1980, was a period of high tax rates (up to 91 percent for the very wealthy), strong labor unions and huge initiatives, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights to help disadvantaged (albeit mostly white) Americans. This was a period of rapid growth in which income inequality declined — and in some ways it looked like today’s Denmark.”
I Am the Portrait of Downward Mobility: “Fully 92 percent of the Americans who reached their 30th birthday in 1970 earned more than their parents had earned at the same age, even after adjusting for inflation. But beginning in the 1970s, the economic ladder gradually became harder to climb, and fewer Americans were able to surpass their parents. In the cohort of Americans who turned 30 in 2010, only half earned more than their parents at the same age, according to research by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor. The American dream had become a coin flip.”
On April 21, a Tuesday, I got a migraine. It hung on through Friday; just as it was exiting the building of my body, something twinged hard in my right lower back, and I spent that weekend unable to move or sit or lie down without pain. By this Tuesday I was able to stop taking megadoses of ibuprofen and sitting/sleeping with a heating pad, and then the migraine returned. Today, Friday again, it is still here, for the 4th day.
Most of the time, migraine does not leave me writhing in pain in a dark room, because I have medication that usually works and keeps me able to mostly function. I can usually work when on my meds. They can make me slow and fuzzy, and fatigued, and feeling generally off, but after I take them the sharp, stabbing pains and the vice grip on my skull subside, so it feels like relief. Slow, fuzzy, fatigued, and off are a gift, when I consider the alternative. The alternative is entire days entirely lost to pain that literally brings me to my knees.
Most of my work meetings begin with a grounding activity, in which we are given some stimulus to help us center our ensuing conversation in our students and families, the majority of whom are people of color and/or living in poverty. The general theme when we are sharing our responses to the stimulus, since we’ve been closed, is this:
We are so fortunate, to be living in the privilege we do. We need to keep at the forefront our families who are not.
In comparison to those who are sick, out of work, working on the front lines (which increasingly feels more literal than metaphorical), and/or targeted by bigots, we white educators who are working are fortunate. As an educator who is not providing direct service to students, I am more fortunate (at least in some ways) than those who are. (More than one I know has shared this teacher’s post this week.)
The other day, I was setting out for a run. The thought came to me: “Death is all around us.” Then came the very next thought, as I took in the blossoming trees and greening grass: “So is life.” And right away, I knew in some deep place that these two facts are never not true. Death and life, always right here, all around us. It’s like Neruda wrote: Budding among the ruins.
Day 49: Budding among the ruins
Jena also offered this:
“And we also know that grief, like any painful emotion not given an outlet, does not just vanish. It goes inward. It takes up room in ways that remain invisible yet are everywhere, not unlike a deadly virus.”
We are all, right now, living among the ruins, of so many things. And even the relatively fortunate among us are grieving. That grief might look like frenetic activity. It might look like laughing inappropriately. It might look like weeping over nothing and everything. It might look like sudden fury over triviality. Or it might look like inertia, binge-watching, or chronic pain.
Mondays through Fridays, I don’t have much room to grieve. I suppose that’s why it goes inward and takes up space in my body, a place where it is largely invisible. Weekends, I get to let it out, so I can be whole enough to dive back in come Monday. Often that takes the form of writing here, but I’m feeling the call to do something different this week. I’m feeling the call to do nothing. I think this is going to have to substitute for the usual Sunday post.
Wishing you a weekend of whatever it is you need to be whole enough to keep going, to bud in whatever kind of soil you find yourself rooted in. Because we all deserve to bloom, even now. Maybe especially now.
Look at what it is that makes a nest: Layers. Strands of this and snippets of that: hair, grass, needle, leaf. And, too: Tenacity, instinct, skill. How many wingbeats must it take? How many miles does a bird traverse back and forth, back and forth, to make its shelter, to attract and secure its mate?
Think of what it is that makes a cup and what it’s for: Curves, walls, a space in which to keep things–water, keys, buttons, change. What is an egg’s shell but a cup full of change? And a nest but a cup full of shells?
In the spring my children were babies, a stellar jay raided a sparrow’s nest in the tree outside my second-story bedroom window. You need three crows for a murder, but it took only one jay to kill the nestlings, high up in the branches, unmoved by the parents’ screeching that sounded, to my human ears, first like screaming, and then like keening.
Consider what it is success requires: Think outside the box.
Late last fall, in a different kind of time, I found an abandoned nest hidden inside a thicket of tangled morning glory and climbing rose. I marveled at its intricacy and craftsmanship. I admired its cunning inner cup. It felt like a prize for my morning’s labor of taming wild plants.
In this spring of strife and threat and fear, when I find the nest again, forgotten on a table at the back of the greenhouse where I’d set it months ago, it sets in motion a train of different thoughts. I think of various shelters I’ve made and what I’ve learned (and haven’t) about how and where to build a nest. I think about what kind of bird I’d want to be and how I want to live. I could never be a predatory jay, raiding other birds’ nests, flying with a raucous flock. I no longer want a pretty home balanced up in the branches of a tree; the view, I know, is lovely, but the rent is high. I think, if it’s a choice, I’d be more finch than sparrow or jay. Like the ones who sheltered in my yard last year, I’d need no human-built box to hold my nest, but only a hollow within a tangle of stems and leaves and thorns, a low, dark, small space a bully jay would never bother.
There’s more than one way to be fit and survive.
Dots (and some thoughts about process):
This week I encountered the nest in the greenhouse soon after reading my friend Kari’s piece on nesting and anxiety. Both had me wanting to write in a literal way about my own home, the place in which I’m sheltering, but I never got beyond the metaphor. Instead I fell down a Google rabbit hole, reading about all kinds of birds and their nests (some linked above), and I spent time watching the ones I share my little corner of the world with, mostly finches and crows. I think this post came out more like poetry than prose because for weeks now I’ve been reading the words of poets on Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. I don’t know Dave, not even in an internet sense–not really–but he thinks he found this blog through the blogroll of someone I know (though he doesn’t remember who), and he’s been linking to my posts. So I’ve been reading the other writers he links to (on Sundays), and their cadences, their ways with words, have likely been planting seeds in my head that are beginning to sprout (which is what happens when writers read). Our connection might (or might not) be Bethany Reid (I’ve seen they are Twitter connected), a poet I met decades ago at the University of Washington, a woman I sometimes think of when I see Roethke’s line about once knowing a woman “lovely in her bones” who sighs back at sighing birds, maybe because she once brought to our workshop a sestina I’ve never forgotten about a young girl chasing geese, and maybe because she’s lovely in the way that songbirds are, and maybe because that time and place and those I knew there are fused with Roethke in my mind. This week Bethany published a post about the poet Crysta Casey, a woman who was beautiful in a different way (more like a loon than a songbird) and whose flight path occasionally crossed our own on that campus, and that, too, seemed connected to metaphors about safety and home. (Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop in the 80s was a nurturing place for many fledgling poets.) Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.
With the exception of 1988, I’ve lived every year since 1970 according to the rhythms of the school-year calendar.
Each summer when we go on break, I know how many weeks have passed for about three or four of them. The point at which I’d have to look at a calendar to know how many weeks it’s been is generally about the same time that the novelty of break has worn off, and “break” has become just how I live. Although the foundations of my life remain the same in the summer months, my school-year ways of being recede and feel very far away, and almost, in important ways, unreal. While my mind knows that they’ll return in September, it’s always a shock to my system when I go back, and for several weeks again I am quite aware of how many it’s been since my life abruptly changed.
That’s where I’ve been this week in our pandemic. I’ve lost track of how many weeks have passed since schools closed and we began self-isolating, and although the foundations of my pre-pandemic life are intact, many ways of being in that life feel far away and, in important ways, unreal. It’s now hard to imagine them coming back, even as I know many of them will.
Here I am, living in the same house, eating the same foods, loving the same people. I am working for the same employer, collaborating with the same colleagues. Monday I sighed upon waking, anticipating the work week facing me; Wednesday I planted fledgling seed starts in the early evening sun during the hour between work’s end and dinner’s beginning; Friday I pulled the summer furniture out of the shed and arranged it on the patio.
But also, here I am, rarely leaving that house, which has also become my workplace. Friday I ate a burrito from a taco truck, and that food that used to be convenient, commonplace sustenance tasted good in the way that only rare treats can, one I felt guilty about indulging because procuring it required leaving the house. Contact with most of my beloveds happens only through a screen.
A major project of the work week was gearing up for our library staff to create read-aloud videos for our students, something we’ve never done before. We’re working together on it via Google Meets and Google Docs. I am doing none of my usual spring tasks; I have not reconciled budgets because I cannot order books without purchase orders and there is no process right now to obtain them, and because there is no one to receive shipments and no way to be sure that in the fall students will be able to access any books we might purchase. A major project inside my head was thinking about what work I can do now that will be useful for whatever school is going to look like in the fall, knowing that we can’t know what it is going to look like.
The only thing that feels sure to me is a future that is different from the past. Not in every way–but also, in every way. If I think of my life as a set of systems–work, home, health, money, relationships–the foundations remain the same (at least for now), but each of them is also so changed that it feels as if there can be no true going back to what they once were. Can’t step into the same river twice and all that.
This is not, at this point, an original thought about the future. But it might be an important one for thinking about how to regard and live through the present.
Late last week, a friend referred to the time we’ve been living in isolation as “lost” and talked about a “return to real life.”
“No,” I said, pushing back. “This is real life. These days are our life, too. We haven’t lost them.”
In the past week I’ve felt myself resisting the idea that this is some time apart, some blip, some brief interruption to our regular programming, in part because the only thing that’s become clear to me in the past week is that our experience with this virus is going to be a long haul, and I don’t want to, in any sense, give away such a big chunk of time by thinking of it as unreal or somehow apart from the whole of my life.
But also, because the life I’m living now is beginning to feel normal.
As I sat down to begin this week’s post, I wondered: When do I stop labeling posts in my notebook with “coronavirusdiary”? When do my entries in this notebook stop being about living through the pandemic and become, instead–again–about just living? When does living through the pandemic end, anyway? When I return to my previous workplace? When restaurants and movies open? When we’ve all been tested for antibodies? When a vaccine is available? Can it ever end, now that we know one might come at any time? Will our previous ways of, say, shopping for groceries, disappear as surely as our previous ways of airline travel did after 9/11?
What is “normal life” or “real life,” anyway?
When I look back over my life, I can see that I’ve lived quite a few different ones. Meaning, I’ve lived through experiences that obliterated what had been my normal and created a new one. I’ve never done it on this scale, in the company of so many others, but at any time things can happen that rip the fabric of our days, leaving us to patch them together in new and different ways. At first, the time is marked by wild disorientation and disbelief, but none of us can sustain the heightened emotions that accompany those states, and as our feelings settle our minds come to accept that our new reality is, in fact, real. We might not like the new rhythms and conditions of our days, but they no longer feel unreal or like a time apart.
I think that’s where I am this week. Somewhere in the middle of some alternate version of my typical July, where I’ve lost track of the weeks, and September is so distant that how I’m living now is what feels real–no, what is real–and not like some bubble of other existence that I’m floating within. A July where blossoms are giving way to leaves, their clustered loveliness a stark contrast to the storm clouds so often hovering overhead, and where time is, indeed, passing–whether we want it to or not–and where September will come, in some form, as it always does, also whether we want it to or not.
A year ago, as part of my goal to eventually kill most of the lawn in my backyard, I removed a section of sod and tossed it in a back corner behind a tangle of rose bushes and what becomes a stand of ginormous lilies by late summer.
It felt like a slovenly thing to do, but no one could really see it much back there, and I didn’t know what else to do with it. I figured it might break down and turn into some good dirt. Somehow. (I don’t really know how such things work.) I focused on the more pleasing parts of the yard and figured I would deal with this problem later.
I hadn’t looked at it since last fall sometime, but a few weeks ago, I noticed that my piles of sod/dirt had undergone a bit of transformation:
This was not the kind of transformation I’d hoped for. Funny how much things can grow when you’re focused on other things, isn’t it? One day it’s just a pile of grassy dirt, and then it’s a pile of fast-growing weeds.
This part of the yard looked way too much like another section looked when I moved in two years ago:
While part of me kind of loved the wild weediness of this, it made the garden beds pretty unusable and it meant that nasty, spiky thistles were propagating into other parts of the yard. I didn’t want them to take over everything. It took me two summers to finally tame it, and I did not want to relive that experience.
So at the beginning of last week, on the heels of the previous hard one, I spent a sunny afternoon transforming that weedy sod dumping ground into what will become (I hope) a vegetable garden. It felt good to pull things up and whack at clumps of dirt with a metal rake. It felt good to get dirty and sweat. It felt good to look forward.
It’s not there yet. There are still quite a few large clods of rooty dirt, and it could use some compost mixed into it (I think). But it’s going to be a nice place for me to learn how to grow vegetables. It gets a lot of southern sun, and almost every time I’ve been back in that corner of the yard lately, I end up in a conversation with my neighbor Oshra (who you can see on the other side of the fence).
I wish I already knew how to grow vegetables. I wish I were more self-sufficient, in the most fundamental of ways. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers, and I have memories of visiting the farm and raiding my great-grandmother’s vegetable garden for carrots. But I don’t know how to grow food, not really. I grew up a suburban child of the 1970’s, and most of the food I ate came from a box. I can’t tell you when I realized that orange juice could be squeezed from an orange rather than a cardboard cylinder, but it was long after I should have.
“I don’t understand why this all feels so hard,” I said to a friend near the end of week 3, about my life in this pandemic. “In any day, the truly important things in my life aren’t significantly different, and nothing in it is that hard. In some ways, it’s easier.”
I hesitated to say the words I thought next: “In some ways, I like it better.”
Without a whole lot of further reflection, I realized that what’s hard is not (for many of us, but certainly not all) how we are actually living now. What’s hard (for me, anyway) has been seeing and understanding clearly, without any buffers, why we are living the way we are.
In some piece I read somewhere last week a writer posited that the United States we once knew and believed in does not exist any more; a new one is emerging and it is going to be a different one, one in which our old norms and systems will not prevail. Anyone who has been paying any attention since at least 2016 must know this is true, but I think it’s taken this pandemic–and our current government’s response to it–to tear down any walls of denial about the truth and impact of this shifting.
And that is scary. A president promoting quackery in the face of pandemic is scary. A makeshift hospital in Central Park and mass graves in New York are scary. A political party that openly states it will suppress votes because otherwise they couldn’t win is scary. A federal government seizing medical supplies but not saying why or where they are going is scary. An economic crash and a prolonged spread of disease in such conditions is scary. It feels like a kind of breaking down that will take years, maybe decades, to recover from, and recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.
I am hearing, from various corners and different voices, that perhaps that is just as it should be. Normal wasn’t working for many of us–even those with some privilege, like me–and we don’t necessarily want to go back. Not to the way things had become. But what I know about transformations and the emergence of new orders is that they are hard, and prolonged, and there are always people who are crushed by them. That is scary, too, and it is fear of what might come that has been the true source of difficulty for me.
While digging in the dirt, I thought about the stock market crash of 1929, and what it meant to those who were my age when that life-changing event happened. It was followed by the Depression, and then WWII. A person who was 55 in 1929 would have been 72 by 1946, the beginning of a return to life not being lived through prolonged, world-wide crisis.
I realized then that ever since the pandemic reached our continent, I’ve been living on hold, feeling as if these days are some time outside of my real life, a time apart. But the pandemic’s effects and what they have revealed about us aren’t going to to be over in a few weeks or even months. After decades of daily, relentless erosion to the institutions and systems that, in real ways, gave me a kind of security that allowed me to live without developing life skills and dispositions that might now become essential, here we are. We are in the thick of the weeds, and I can no longer ignore them and focus on the pretty parts of the yard. I need to learn how to survive–maybe even thrive?–while living within them. Because they have grown so, so tall, and it will take a long time to eradicate them.
If a person my age at the time of that earlier crash lived “on hold” until the crises ended and things felt like some good kind of normal, they would, in important ways, miss most of the last years of their life. And I don’t want to do that. Out in the garden, I resolved to stop living through my days as if they are, somehow, lesser days than any others I’ve had. I don’t know that it will be years until we feel as if we out from under this, but I do know I don’t have enough left to me to wait for some normal to start really living again.
I resolved, through week 4, to start saying out loud, “There are things about this that I like.” I resolved to find and revel in what I’m enjoying, which is not replacing the anger and fear in my days, but is living alongside it. Things like:
I like that I am waking and sleeping at hours that are more compatible with my body.
I like working from home and being in my home more.
I like spending more time with the person and dogs I get to spend this time with.
I like having more time and energy for things like laundry and yard work and house projects.
I like spending time on frivolous creative pursuits.
I like walking more and driving less, and seeing things I can’t through a windshield.
Last week I claimed to be an optimist, and I know that might seem at odds with resigning myself to a long haul of hard times. But I don’t think that optimism means having blind faith in good outcomes, or seeing only the bright side of every situation, or denying scary truths. A friend suggested to me this week that an optimist is a person who doesn’t believe in premature closure; in other words, an optimist is someone who, in the face of a challenge, remains open to new and different possibilities emerging from it. While they may see a place as dark and hard and wrong and broken, they don’t believe that’s the end of the story about that place.
I like that definition. It could be easy for me to look at when and how I grew up and the life I’ve lived thus far and conclude that I am probably not very well-equipped for where we are and where we might be heading. In light of that, I could curl up into a ball and wait for this all to pass, hoping any fallout doesn’t land too hard on me. Or I could continue to toss all manner of things into some out-of-the-way corner of my life and resolve not to look at it. Or I could sink into a hopeless pit and spend the time I have left looking backward to some good old days (the ones of my youth that were, in many ways, pretty good for me and many others).
But I don’t want to do any of those things. It has always been true that all we really have is the day we are in. I don’t feel like giving away any that I get. I’m alive right now. There’s no pause button, no stepping away. This is how we live now, and at the risk of being terribly corny and out of character, I’m going to end this entry by quoting from a TV show about football (of all things) that characterizes how I want to enter into week 5:
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose
(Can’t get much more American than that.)
America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why. “America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains. A small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.”
Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal “We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.”
Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting “Well, the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open.”
The Nordic Theory of Everything “Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problems the system creates. Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future….And whether the United States wants to admit this to itself or not, staying stuck in the past is putting itself at an ever-increasing disadvantage in the world.”
Some years ago, when I was in the midst of making an important and difficult choice, my mother asked me the most useful question anyone has ever asked me:
“What kind of hard do you want?”
It cut right through any illusion I had that there was an option without pain. Her question gave me the gift of clarity: Knowing that no matter what I chose, it was going to be hard, I could see more clearly what my options truly were.
My third week of the pandemic contained all kinds of hard, and almost none of it felt like the right kind.
I am going to preface everything right up front with a disclaimer of sorts. If anyone is privileged in our shared disaster, it is me. I am getting paid. My nearest and dearest are safe and healthy. I have water, food, heat, internet, and toilet paper. I am not living through this in close proximity to addictions, abuse, or toxic people.
But this is all still hard. There are still losses, challenges, pain, and fear of future loss of all kinds for everyone, no matter how (relatively) good we’ve got it right now.
I think that would be OK if all the hard was the right kind. When I was home for two weeks, it wasn’t the wrong kind, which is probably why I felt mostly OK in it. While I felt some guilt when comparing my situation to that of healthcare or other essential workers, I knew I was doing the most important thing I (personally) could do, and I felt solidarity with others in it. It wasn’t hard to stay home, even when there were places I wanted to go, because lots of others were doing it and there was consensus on the necessity of doing it. For the first time in years now, I felt a fledgling sense of unity with my countrymen, and in the midst of the hard, that felt really good.
This week, all of the public school educators in my state went back to work remotely. On Monday morning, our schools had four directives: Feed our kids, be ready to provide childcare for essential workers, personally connect with our students and their families and provide supplemental learning opportunities, and pay our staff. This, too, felt like the right kind of hard for us to be taking on.
By Monday night, though, our state’s department of education issued a new directive: provide distance learning for all, to include awarding credits for high school students, and get it up and running in the next two weeks. Even our administrators didn’t know this was coming.
This is the wrong kind of hard, and by Friday afternoon I was full of something that I eventually identified as rage. It was hard to tell, because it was leaking out of me in the form of tears (and had been for days), but that’s what it was, all right. Rage.
I suppose it might have been some tipping point of the wrong kind of hard. This week has revealed so many kinds of hard that didn’t have to be, because of actions driven by corruption, ignorance, ineptitude, greed, and at least one giant, narcissistic ego. Instead of being united around actions to best serve all of us, we are fighting each other over necessary supplies and asinine displays of political loyalties, and as a result people are dying. This is the wrong kind of hard.
So, there is that, and it’s the foundation of my rage, for sure. But this week, as I and all the educators I know dove into our challenge in the midst of this strange, horrible time, it quickly became apparent that what we are being asked to do is the wrong kind of hard, too.
Despite my frequently dire tone here, I am an idealist and an eternal optimist. (It’s why I’m so often angry and railing.) “This is an opportunity,” I have said to anyone who might listen. “Here is our chance to do things differently, to see our mission differently, to really think about what matters in education.”
Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I mean, maybe. But not this week, and surely not next.
Instead of releasing much of the utter crap that permeates public education, it feels as if our state has doubled down on it (as have many states). We love to talk about equity and “trauma-informed practice” and “culturally-responsive teaching” until we’re blue in the face, but we are about to embark on delivering “education” in a time of tremendous trauma in ways that are likely to exacerbate it, especially for our most vulnerable students.
How do I know? Because of how it has already, before we’ve even begun delivering instruction, been traumatizing their teachers. In my interactions with colleagues this week I learned that they are worrying about our students dealing with cramped living situations (4 generations in one apartment), hunger, income loss (all adults out of work), adult-level responsibilities for siblings (a high-schooler caring for 6 younger children), abuse of all kinds, and being sex-trafficked (two different teachers shared this worry).
And in the midst of that, they are trying to re-imagine what teaching and learning might be, figure out how to learn all manner of new tools, take care of their own lives, and have some kind of integrity in a system that, in what passed for the best of times, routinely failed our students with disabilities, our students of color, and our students living in poverty.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an educator to imagine how that’s likely to go. Could we just, for once, get real here?
Education is profoundly important, but two months without assignments and tests and grades in the midst of a traumatizing crisis is not going to be a thing that damages our kids forever. Increasing the trauma by adding to their families’ stress and creating inequitable opportunities (and consequences) might, though.
I wish we could acknowledge that: 1) We are living through a crisis that is taking a tremendous toll on every one of us and will have repercussions that will alter the course of many (all?) lives forever; and 2) many of our systems (including schools) were broken before this started; and 3) seeing the brokenness and the fragility of all kinds of things we rely on for stability is traumatic; and 4) given #1, #2, and #3, perhaps trying to patch things up and make them work kinda like they used to isn’t heroic or the thing to do right now. Perhaps, instead, the thing to do is take care of fundamental, human needs (food, shelter, safety, mental and physical health, connection) and pay attention to what that can show us about how we might all live better when the acute stage of this event is over. (As a good friend told me on Friday, we aren’t close to the end yet. We aren’t even close to the end of the beginning.)
Like I said, I’m an idealist and an optimist. (And I’m not being sarcastic.)
What I know about educators and most human beings is that we can and will dig deep for the right kinds of hard. When you see groups of regular people rising up and pushing back (which is already happening), it’s not because they are lazy or greedy or want more than their fair share. It’s because they care deeply about something and they have been pushed to their limits doing things that are the wrong kind of hard and that damage things they value. Like kids and their families.
Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life? “Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries. But with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.”
None of This is Normal “Normal is gone. There will be a new normal. We’ll get there. We’ll get through this. But things will change and that’s going to be okay. Maybe better than okay. Maybe we’ll come out better in the end. But we don’t have to be better now, we don’t have to be better overnight.”
Philly Teacher: School district was right not to rush distance learning… “In this moment, we shouldn’t ignore inequality, but demand that addressing it be central to any policy put forward. We need to stop thinking about education simply as a commodity that our students are losing. At their best, public schools can serve the community by transforming education into a social commitment to our future.”